357 Mobile Crane

Machine - Model - Toy

It's a feeling that all collectors recognize: Slightly sweaty palms, shallow breathing and great mental churning as the brain tries to align the senses and make a final determination as to whether what is being held in hand is "treasure" or "trash."

When the first UNIT 357 Mobile Crane rolled out of the Milwaukee factory in 1946 it was heralded as being "Fast, Powerful and Rugged." With its remarkably modern looking design - including the unique UNIT "full vision cab" - and the capability to work as a shovel, hoe, dragline or crane, the UNIT 357 was an ideal machine for the expanding post-war construction market.

Toy Trucker & Contractor
Feature article, February 2006

With a heritage that started in Detroit when William Ford, Henry Ford's brother, founded the Wilford Shovel Company in the early 1900's, the design of the UNIT 357 Mobile Crane was based on the company philosophy of building machines that could be quickly and easily converted to suit the task at hand. Whether digging, lifting or material handling, the UNIT 357 was found to be more than capable of its advertised "One Thousand and One Uses."
As the first of the production UNIT 357 machines were rolling out of the factory in 1946, Julian Kutz, the head of engineering at the UNIT Crane and Shovel Corporation redrew the plans for the "357" at 1:16 scale. Using these plans, Kutz took it upon himself to produce 3 hand built models of the UNIT 357 Mobile Crane to be used for sales presentations and trade show displays.
Although the details were never recorded, it is safe to assume that Kutz made use of the facilities at the UNIT factory to create the brass masters and sand cast aluminum parts for the major components of these functioning scale models. Again, there is no written record, but it's easy to imagine Kutz using a small factory lathe to turn the solid aluminum wheels, brass hoist drums and sheaves to complete his miniature machine. With hand soldered open lattice booms, opening cab doors, working rigging, functional steering and a coat of UNIT factory orange paint, these models played a key role in the sales and marketing program for the cranes.

One of three UNIT 357 Mobile Crane
models made at the UNIT Crane
& Shovel factory - the prototype
for the Doepke UNIT Crane toy.

When they had completed their usefulness for "show and tell", the three models went home with Kutz where they were stored in the basement. It wasn't until many years later that these models would come back to light when they were found by a construction collector looking for information about people who had worked at the UNIT factory.

Factory model showing full vision
operator cab and hand built boom.

Opening cab door, gantry and
draw works on factory model.

Remarkably, all 3 of the Kutz models, along with some spare parts and pieces, the brass masters and his reworked scale drawings, were found intact. Imagine if they had never been discovered - sitting on the shelf gathering dust - due to their striking resemblance to the well known and relatively easy to find toy version of the same machine.
That toy, first manufactured by Doepke in 1949, was one of the most popular pressed steel construction toys ever made. Rugged enough to survive the rigors of outdoor use and having realistic details like rubber Goodyear tires that mom would allow inside the house, the $14.95 investment for a Doepke UNIT Crane toy was money well spent. Operating this toy with its two functional hand crank hoists, accurate rigging, stamped steel open lattice boom and a working clamshell bucket (perfect for excavating the sandbox or a cereal bowl) lead hundreds - if not thousands - of crane operators to their career paths.

TOP: Doepke UNIT mobile
crane pressed steel toy.

BOTTOM: Doepke toy showing
gantry hand crank hoists and
stamped steel open lattice boom.

Doepke pressed steel toy on the left.
UNIT factory model on the right.
Although the Doepke UNIT Crane is a toy, the detailing and proportions are so close to the three original Kutz factory models that there will never be an end to the speculation of exactly how the Doepke brothers and Kutz collaborated in its creation. Whether they have been kept in the attic since childhood, picked up at collector events or purchased on eBay, the Doepke UNIT Crane has remained a "must have" piece for construction collectors.

In the early 1990's, Classic Construction Models (CCM) created a number of accessory items for the Doepke UNIT Crane toy including a pressed steel track assembly and pressed steel boom inserts to extend the reach of the crane. Drawn from original crane information and inspired by Doepke toy construction details, these custom accessories were quickly snapped up by collectors who wanted to add to the value of their original toy cranes.

Doepke UNIT crane with
CCM pressed steel crawler
assembly and boom insert.

The track mounted equivalent to the UNIT 357, whether used as a crane, hoe, or shovel, was designated as a UNIT 514. With the release of the CCM track assemblies, collectors were inspired to create toy machines of their own, like this scratch built UNIT cable hoe built from an original Doepke crane cab with a solid steel boom, equalizer and custom paint job with UNIT factory striping.

Scratch built UNIT 514 cable hoe
pressed steel toy with CCM crawlers.

Doepke UNIT 1014 truck mount
prototype pressed steel toy.

And perhaps, the rarest of the rare UNIT Crane toys is a Doepke factory prototype of the truck mounted UNIT 1014. No one knows when the decision was made to develop this toy and then not put it into production, but as all construction collectors – with the sole exception of the one who owns this piece – would agree, it is a shame it did not happen.

Given all of its positive attributes, the Doepke toy still presents one insurmountable challenge to many construction and railroad collectors. At more than 13 inches long and over 23 inches high at the boom tip, this toy is out of scale for railroaders and too big for construction display cabinets that are more suited for models a third its size.

The answer, which was recently introduced by CCM, is a hand built, limited edition all brass scale model of the original toy. Proportioned to fit with typical die cast construction models and on "O gauge" layouts, this model is an exact reproduction of the Doepke UNIT 357 Crane toy, modeled at 1:48 proportions from the original machine.

CCM's all brass 1:48 scale model
of the Doepke UNIT Crane toy.

From the rubber tires and boom tip sheaves to the cable drum brakes and working outriggers, this model is so true to the original toy that it is easy to imagine all of the employees at the Doepke factory collectively scratching their heads and wondering, "Who shrank our toy?"

The UNIT 357 crane has left an enduring legacy as a machine, a sales model, a toy and once again a scale model. Regardless of what direction your interest in construction collectibles takes you, it would be a mistake not to make room for these legendary machine replicas in your collection.

All Materials © Classic Construction Models
Story and photographs by Jason Diamond


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